Thursday, July 12, 2012

Signpost to Murder (British MGM, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

A blast from the past: a note from my journal in 2005 on a movie Turner Classic Movies re-ran last May.

I ran another movie, Signpost to Murder, which had in common with Separate Lies little more than a title beginning with “S” and a setting in the British countryside. I’d thought it was a 1954 movie because that’s what it had said in Turner Classic Movies’ schedule, but it was actually a 1964 film, which meant that there was no real excuse for Joanne Woodward’s absurdly wooden acting style — she plays a blonde bimbo and appears to be trying to channel Marilyn Monroe, nice figure (when we first see her she’s wearing a bathing suit), big blonde hair and breathy intonations and all. She plays Molly Thomas, a married woman living in a village near an insane asylum, and when she flings open her door in all her bathing-suited glory she expects to see her husband but whom she really ends up greeting is Alex Forrester (Stuart Whitman), who has just escaped from the asylum after having slashed the throat of his wife and been found criminally insane nine years before. Earlier the film has opened with a group of tourists driving past the asylum and seeing Forrester and someone else arguing on its grounds; they assume they’re both patients but in fact the other man is Forrester’s therapist, Dr. Mark Fleming (Edward Mulhare), who goes on to argue in vain  before a hospital sanity board for Forrester’s release. Forrester crashes the Thomas home, which features a large water wheel (it was apparently a millhouse later converted into a residence), and at first terrorizes Molly at gunpoint but eventually seduces her. (“This has gone past Stockholm; it’s the Greenland syndrome!” Charles joked at this point.)

Things seem to be going swimmingly for this new couple until the body of Molly’s husband (ya remember Molly’s husband?) turns up naked, its throat slashed, on the water wheel. At this point — besides reflecting that next to this film Five Minutes to Live was beginning to look good by comparison (Johnny Cash may not have been a better actor than Stuart Whitman but at least he was a more charismatic screen presence!) — I was expecting a denouement along the lines of The Scarf, a much better movie, in which the therapist would turn out to have murdered Molly’s husband and also to have killed Forrester’s wife nine years before in the first place, then framed him for the crime and used his connections with the medical establishment to keep him in the asylum. Charles suspected that Molly Thomas would turn out to be implicated in the murder of her husband and in the end we both turned out to be right: she and Fleming were having an affair and plotted to get rid of Mr. Thomas (though Molly proclaimed that “I only wanted him out of the way, not dead!”) — Fleming killed him in the way Forrester had previously killed his wife and allowed him to “escape” in order to set him up for the crime. The film ends with Fleming in custody and Molly falling into the water wheel, which either crushed or drowned her (we’re not quite sure).

Though competently directed by George Englund (I’ve been trying to come up with some pun involving his name and the name of the country where this took place, but I haven’t yet) and beautifully photographed (in black-and-white CinemaScope ratio) by Paul C. Vogel — who brings far more chiaroscuro atmospherics to this story than it deserves — Signpost to Murder is an excessively contrived thriller that wastes a potentially good premise (though the woman-held-hostage-by-a-madman trope has been done far better in many other films, as has the moral reversal of the presumably victimized woman turning out to be part of the plot — can you say Vertigo?) and reflects all too faithfully its stage-play origins. Ironically, though she didn’t come up with the original characters or situations — the source play is by one Monte Doyle — the script is credited to, of all people, Sally Benson, original author of Meet Me in St. Louis, though her participation isn’t quite as weird as it seems at first glance since, in a film that cries out for the Hitchcock touch, she actually had a Hitchcock connection (she was one of the credited writers on Shadow of a Doubt, obviously called in to give the central family and the small-town setting some of the same ambiance as the “Kensington stories” that became the basis for St. Louis even though Hitchcock threw in a psychopathic killer and took the story and setting in very different directions). — 10/13/05